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2016 Olympic preview: dark horses and front runners

The United States is a favorite to win gold, but don’t count out some of these dark horses

Soccer: Women's World Cup-Final -Japan at United States Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve made our predictions for who will top group; now here are our thoughts on who’s going to go all the way at the Olympics.

The front runners

United States

This one’s pretty obvious, but the U.S. is the current holder of the gold medal and the World Cup. They’ve revamped their team since 2015 into a very attacking squad and they’ve had a good 2016 so far, with results against teams like Japan, Germany, France, England, and Canada. Their path through knockout has them likely to face China or Sweden early on, both teams they should be able to handle without too much fuss. The real roadblock to gold may lie in facing Brazil during semifinals, which is sure to be an interesting game given the history of these two teams in tournament knockout matches.

Germany

Another obvious choice, but with good reason, as Germany continues to be one of the top tactical and technical teams in the world. Still, they’ve lost top players like Celia Sasic and Nadine Kessler to retirement and are having a bit of a transitional phase at the moment. But they also still have a ton of veterans on board, including Dzsenifer Marozsan and Anja Mittag. The real hiccup here is that they might hit France in quarterfinals, and France is almost as likely to take them out as the United States. Once they’re over that hurdle, if they stay sharp it should be smooth sailing to the final.

France

Perhaps “front runner” isn’t the most accurate term for France here, though they’re definitely not a dark horse. The correct term might be “better than average runner” or “need to beat Germany first then they’re a front runner.” France has lost some key players too, with Laura Georges and Laura Boulleau gone from the defense, and their starting goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi can be as much of a liability as a big time shotstopper. But they have a calm and experienced midfield with Camille Abily, Amandine Henry, and Louisa Necib all in the mix. France’s big hurdle, should they not finish first in Group G, is probably Germany in quarterfinals. That may end up being the quarterfinal game to watch.

The dark horses

Australia

People have been saying Australia is a “young squad” for years now, and though it’s technically true, it’s in age only. Thanks to early investment in players like Caitlin Foord, Alanna Kennedy, and Sam Kerr when they were teenagers, they’re now all in their very early twenties but already seasoned professionals. They have a deeper squad than some might realize and plenty of scoring threats, with control in the midfield coming from the likes of Katrina Gorry, and some very solid defenders. Also keep in mind their good performance in the 2015 World Cup, when they were the only squad to score on the US in group and they beat Brazil in round of 16. But they’re dark horses due to their struggle to find the net more than once against top teams, and the problem of having Germany in their group. Win group and they likely face France. Come second...and they’ll likely face Germany again in semis. Australia will probably make a fair run at that gold medal, but there’s a lot of hurdles along the way.

Brazil

It’s probably a tad impolite to call Brazil a dark horse in their own country, and they will almost certainly make a run at least into semifinals, but major tournament wins remain elusive for Brazil. Despite a raft of individual talent, not least of which is the inimitable Marta, they’ve often been hampered by issues from their own federation and a lack of support for women’s soccer in general within the country. That could change as they play for a medal at home and attempt to peak coming out of an unprecedented 18-month residency camp. They are very likely to top Group E, which probably clears the way until semifinals - at which point they may just encounter the United States.

Canada

They struggled in the 2015 World Cup under the pressures of being the host nation and the lingering hype from their bronze medal, but after underperforming there, perhaps they now have a lighter performance burden on their shoulders, just as they did after finishing dead last in 2011, then going into 2012 with no expectations. They also have a much-revamped squad, with a handful of good young players joining original youth phenom Kadeisha Buchanan all over the pitch. Ashley Lawrence and Janine Beckie will both be expected to contribute heavily and if they come good, could end up being big difference-makers propelling Canada past quarterfinals. But Canada is still a team that needs everything to click for them in order to progress; they can’t afford many snafus or bad patches if they want to get through knockout, or even place advantageously in group. Winning group does them no favors as they immediately have to play what will probably be France, but coming second could mean the difference between playing Sweden or China and playing Brazil at home.